Plant 152

Cyperus papyrus L. (Cyperaceae)



Cyperus is a cosmopolitan genus of some 600 species in the sedge family. Sedges, which superficially have the appearance of grasses, have solid, triangular stems and are generally found in damp habitats. The most famous member of the genus Cyperus is papyrus, a species strongly associated with Egyptian culture, although all the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean used it as a writing surface. The papyrus is a North African species that can reach five metres in height. Rather than being brought into cultivation, papyrus was harvested from its native swamplands, including those along the banks of the Nile.

Manufacturing papyri from papyrus sedge is a complex, messy process. Pith from the sedge's triangular stem is cut into long, thick strips which are laid side by side. These are then covered with a second layer of strips laid at right angles to the first, then soaked in water and hammered together. The hammered sheet is crushed to extract water, dried and then polished to produce a high-quality writing surface. Individual sheets can be glued together forming scrolls or piled together and bound into codices. In moist climates the cellulose-rich sheets readily decay as they are attacked by insects and mould, but in dry climates, such as the Mediterranean and Egypt, papyrus is a stable, rot-resistant writing surface; fragments thousands of years old have been recovered from Egyptian tombs. In 79 CE, nearly 2,000 papyrus scrolls in the library of Julius Caesar's father-in-law were preserved at Herculaneum by ash from Mount Vesuvius. Papyri not only provide an invaluable record of people's daily lives; they can be dated using carbon-dating techniques.

Besides its use in record-keeping, papyrus stems were used in many other aspects of Mediterranean and Near Eastern life, such as rope-, sail- and basket-making, boat construction and as a food source. As a marshland plant, papyrus sedge is a terraformer: it stabilizes soils and reduces erosion, while some investigations show its potential for water purification and sewage treatment.

The papyrus sedge also gives us some of the language associated with knowledge and ideas. In Greek, papyrus pith is biblos, which gives us words such as bibliography and Bible. The word papyrus is also Greek, being derived from papuros, the edible parts of the papyrus plant, and ultimately gives us the word paper. In the words of Pliny the Elder, papyrus is the 'material on which the immortality of human beings depend'.

Further reading

Gaudet J 2014. Papyrus. The plant that changed the world - from Ancient Egypt today's water wars. Pegasus Books.

Stephen Harris